Dec 20 2011

Zambia Days: Michael Sata’s unusual populist presidency

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 2:24 PM

Zambia’s new president, Michael Sata, continues to set a new course for leadership among high elected officials in Africa. Last month he declared he would avoid foreign trips because he did not want to waste the country’s resources on extravagances when the funds could be better used to assist poor Zambians. Now the Africa Works correspondent in Lusaka, Chanda Chisala, explains that even when Sata does travel within the region — he went to Uganda in mid-December to hand over leadership of a sub-regional grouping to Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni — Sata is doing so in an unusual manner. Writes Chisala:

“Yeah he had to make an exception because it was a regional meeting and he was handing over chairmanship of it to someone else or something like that. The other presidents used to travel just to “visit” another country, or to “learn” how they manage their countries — and they paid themselves thousands of dollars on each such trip. Recently he had to meet Mugabe in Livingstone, which is our tourist city near Zimbabwe; he was hosted at an expensive hotel there, where they met with Mugabe, and Sata insisted that he would pay the hotel bill from his own pocket instead of government coffers — maybe the first time that has happened in humanity’s history? The guy is certainly an interesting kind of populist!”

Interesting indeed. African presidents continue to display a preference for pomp and ceremony over practical action. Sata suggests an alternative approach — and is backing up his rhetoric with action. On a recent trip to the historic Zambian city of Livingstone, near the border with neighboring Zimbabwe, Sata traveled by public bus to a meeting with president Robert Mugabe — and then afterwards, even more improbably, settled his own hotel bill.

Sata is a work in progress — and hopes for his presidency must be tempered by an awareness — highlighted by Chris Blattman, the Yale thinker on development, in his insightful blog — that Africa enthusiasts have been “disappointed” by promising African leaders before. But in fairness, promising American political leaders — even those with African roots — have disappointed also.

Perhaps, in these difficult times, all over the world, we are condemned to endure in the gap between drift and leadership.

Dec 18 2011

Great Green Wall for Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 2:32 AM

The idea is spreading that sub-Saharan Africans can take positive steps to reduce the adverse effects of climate change. They are not, in short, doomed, and through their own labors can improve their livelihoods while at the same time making prudent steps to adapt to global warming.

That’s the sub-text of a valuable article by Mark Hertsgaard on the political economy of reforestation along the Sahel-Sahara border lands. Building on the undeniable evidence of small-bore environmental success stories in Africa — of the sort I and Alex Perry of Time magazine have trumpeted over the past year to counteract the new Afro-enviro-pessimism, Hertsgaard tracks a growing movement to support strategic tree-planting on a grand scale — across the entire belly of the continent. The effort has the backing of influential African political leaders and the conditonal support of Western donors. Hertsgaard concludes, “The Great Green Wall is too good an idea to be allowed to fail.”

After years of demeaning and degrading the prospects for Africa’s future on the basis of gloomy environmental forecasts, the refreshing conversion of Hertsgaard, an influential writer on climate change, marks another milestone on Africa’s transformation into a “normal” region. No longer, at least in the hyperbolic arena of environmental calamity, can Africa be written off as a hopeless case. Rather, there’s a growing appreciation that the same kind of everyday tactics of adaptation that, say, Americans must adopt in the years ahead, Africans can and will adopt — and to everyone’s advantage.

Dec 11 2011

the politics of African fashion

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 1:43 PM

I had my own tailor for some years in Accra, Ghana. His bright-colored shop is located behind the main drag in the trendy Osu neighgborhood, on Kuku Hill, his front door facing onto the Independence Square and the ocean. Many a later afternoon, I talked fashion with him and enjoyed the sea breeze.

My tailor, like many tailors in Africa, fancied himself foremost as a designer, and a rather fine one. He did have a flair for integrating retro-hippe styles with the enduring colors and fabrics appreciated in the coastal belt running from Dakar to Lome. Often, he made outfits for me from scratch: top-and-down, drawstrings, from intricately-pattern waxed cotton or sometimes “political suits” made of plainer fabric and useful to wear to meetings with government officials or local businessmen. He also made unusual shirts and sleeveless tunics that could be worn to Labadi beach and came with matching drawstrings.

I can’t say that everything my tailor created worked, but I always appreciated his self-confidence. He knew his vision and he presented his clothing without fear or apology. That he made every single outfit in his shop with his own sewing machine and hands lent a certain gravitas to him.

He often talked about becoming a fashion designer, but he had no sense of scale. He didn’t have a single employee, and he often went to the market himself to buy fabrics. At my request, he’d usually accompany me on such trips, and I might treat him to lunch as compensation. But the notion of manufacturing clothes was beuond him. He made clothes from his mind’s eye – and for humans he knew, touched, heard.

Fashion in West Africa is a poor man’s glamour in which I eagerly participated because, even by the standards of local elites, I was poor. The cost of looking good, while not trivial, could well be afforded by anyone with the some sort of regular employment.

That’s still true, but with machine-made clothes flooding Africa now – mainly new garments from China and India but also used clothes from charities in America and Europe – the fidelity to local tailors is declining. Mine soldiers on, living off the legacy of a long reputation for quality and service. But many tailors have surrendered to market forces they neither understand nor approve of. Most of them, bereft of great design ideas, face a race with anonymous and distant machines – a race they’re losing.

There are exceptions, designers who because of education or priviledge or sheer determination, have risen to achieve international recognition – and this despite the existence of an African factory system that could produce small batches of high-quality clothing. In her original and much-needed new book, Helen Jennings, a fashion journalist, has documented and profiled leaders in “New African Fashion,” as she titles her book. The results are captivating — and amply demonstrate that African design, while not spawning yet a fashion industry of any scale or scope, is at least gaining a global audience of sophisticates.

African clothing designers remain vulnerable to the predations of European, American and even Asian designers who seize on exotic motifs in African fashion and present them, drained of meaning and often in fragmented ways, to their own distant tribes. But increasingly, the fruits of uniquely-talented African designers cannot be stolen wholesale. At least not without the risk of global approbation.

And that’s an improvement, a sign that in fashion, as in some much else, the normal and functional in African life is taking center stage.

Dec 09 2011

Congolese election reminder of African political pathologies

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 10:10 AM

The Economist this week has a rousing article on the robust economic growth in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Impressive. And the attention is long overdue. I’ve harped for years on the neglected story of the expansion in Africa’s middle-class and the relative prosperity of cities in the region and even ordinary farmers.

The new African prosperity is welcome, but political dysfunction persists. The announcement that Joseph Kabila is again the presidential victor in a Congolese election is a grim reminder that no manner of economic growth can soften the blows of pathological politics.

International observers are calling Kabila’s election “disputed,” in part because Kinshasa, the heart of the Congo and one of Africa’s most vibrant and largest cities, is home to legions of Kabila’s opponents. As to how Kabila could win the election without Kinshasa there is only one explanation. He stole it.

In the weeks ahead, the Congolese will decide whether Kabila can persist in his misrule in peace. If strife does break out, the Congo’s many international supporters will regret that they did not insist that Kabila retire from politics as a price for continued aid to the country. Having come to power after his father, a coup leaders, was assasinated, Kabila has few ties to his own country, and his performance as president — as measured by his success in improving government services and reducing violence in the troubled Eastern region — has been abysmal.

There is no reason to believe that Kabila will do any better this time around. He should and let new leaders, with strong support, take their chance at leading this vast country with so troubled a past.

Of course, Kabila’s voluntary departure is a fantasy. Even as Africa’s economy grows at an Asian-like pace, the region’s politics too-0ften defies logic and practicality. The Congo isn’t the only country where dictatorial rulers rely on elections to provide “cover” for their Hobbsian rule.

Perhaps now that the international community is starting to grasp that Africa’s problem isn’t poverty — but rather how to fairly distribute the wealth being generated by its endowments and its people — there will be a new focus on promoting a genuine revolution in African democracy.

Dec 06 2011

Computer science emerges in Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 7:41 AM

For another overlooked positive trend in the sub-Saharan, see my article today in the New York Times, “Vast and Fertile Ground in Africa for Science to take root.” The article presents smart Africans doing important things in a dignified manner: always an important message when the facts on the ground amply justify.